Yes Magazine – Free the Children: the Story of Craig Kielburger

Tracy Rysavy

September 30, 1999

As Kielburger took the stage, squinting slightly from the glare of the spotlights, amusement rippled through the crowd of 2,000 when they saw that his head barely cleared the podium—until someone brought him a stepstool. But the laughter soon turned to curiosity and, when he began to speak, to admiration.

According to the International Labour Organization, there are more than 250 million working children. “That’s equal to the entire population of the United States,” he said, shoving aside his notes as he gestured emphatically, his clear, green eyes appearing to take in each member of the audience. “No one has a good excuse for ignoring this problem.”

The audience periodically interrupted his talk with applause, and no one seemed to notice that he’d gone well over his scheduled time. When he finished, the audience rose to their feet, wildly clapping their hands. As the applause finally began to wane, a member of the OFL briefly grabbed the microphone to announce that the organization would be granting a surprise donation of $5,000 to Kielburger’s organization, Free the Children, for the purpose of building a rehabilitation center for child laborers in India. That gesture was soon matched by many of the other organizations present. At the end of the evening – an evening in which Free the Children had merely intended to raise awareness that child labor did indeed exist—Kielburger had raised $150,000 for the cause.

He was 12 years old.

An Issue of the Heart

Iqbal Masih was sold to a Pakistani carpet factory when he was four years old as collateral on a loan his parents had taken out to pay for their eldest son’s wedding. For six years, Iqbal worked 12 hour days, six days a week, tying the tiny knots that make up the expensive Pakistani carpets coveted by tourists.

The owner of the factory added fines to his parents’ loan when he made mistakes and for the bowl of rice he was given each day—making it impossible for the loan to ever be repaid. Iqbal lived under the constant threat of being beaten with sticks or metal tools. When he was 10, he escaped with the help of a human rights organization that later sent him to school. He traveled to many countries, speaking out against child labor. But in 1995, 12 year-old Iqbal was murdered. His mother remains convinced that the carpet factory owner had a hand in his killing. Iqbal’s story was covered in major newspapers around the world, although often relegated to the back pages. It was soon forgotten by both the mainstream media and its readers.

Seven thousand miles from Pakistan, however, another 12 year-old boy committed Iqbal’s story to memory, an act that marked the birth of a youth-driven movement against child labor that would span 20 countries.

Craig Kielburger was searching through a Toronto newspaper for the comics when a photo of Iqbal caught his eye. He read Iqbal’s story and held it up as a mirror to his own life in Canada – going to school, hanging out with friends, running with the cross country team. What he saw reflected back at him were profound differences between the two.

“I was shocked. In school, I had learned about the American Civil War and the Underground Railroad, but I thought slavery was something out of the past, that it had been abolished,” he says.

With the dawning realization that slavery was still very much in existence, Kielburger photocopied the article on Iqbal Masih and gathered statistics on child labor at the local library. With all the idealism and zeal of youth, he spoke to his class about what he had learned, and his crusade against child labor had begun.

Well, maybe you couldn’t have called it a crusade just then. What he actually did was invite some friends over for “pop and pizza” to discuss Iqbal’s story.

“After that, about ten of us started doing small things to help,” he says. “It wasn’t anything dramatic. We passed around a couple of petitions to political leaders and heads of corporations. Then, a few of us gave speeches in schools and for religious and community groups, and it just began to snowball from there.”

On one occasion, Free the Children members learned that Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian leader in the fight against child labor, had been imprisoned for his actions on behalf of child workers. They collected 3,000 signatures and wrote a letter to the prime minister of India asking for Satyarthi’s release. The petition and the letter were sent to India in a shoebox wrapped in brown paper.

Satyarthi was eventually released. During a subsequent trip to Canada, he recalled the box that had been sent to India in his name: “It was one of the most powerful actions taken on my behalf,” he said, “and, for me, definitely the most memorable.”

The Kielburger home eventually became the world headquarters for Free the Children (FTC), a nonprofit organization that works to abolish child labor practices worldwide. Today, over 100,000 children in 27 countries – including Canada, the US, Mexico, India, Brazil, Ghana, and Pakistan – have been involved in FTC activities, and the organization receives thousands of letters each week from children who want to get involved. Although each office has a few adult volunteers who help with recruitment, bookkeeping, and mentoring, most of the energy and momentum behind FTC’s efforts comes from its members—all of whom are under 18.

“Every young person has an issue that hits them in the heart,” says Kielburger. “But I believe that society has taught them they don’t have the power to change things, that they have to wait until they’re adults to achieve results.”

Perspectives from Southeast Asia After his success with the Ontario Federation of Labour, Kielburger planned a trip to southeast Asia to visit the children working in labor camps and on the streets and bring their perspective back to the developed world.

Kielburger dipped into his savings and pooled money from his allowance and from doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to purchase his plane ticket.

He enlisted Alam Rahman, a 25 year-old friend from Bangladesh, to go along as his chaperone, and he set up meetings with human rights groups in the countries he would be visiting. Finally, on December 9, 1995, Kielburger boarded a KLM flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Through their travels, they would meet with children from the labor camps, slums, and back alleys of Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. One of those children was Muniannal, a girl whose age Kielburger estimates was around eight.

Muniannal worked in a back alley in Madras, sorting through used syringes with lightning speed to separate the needles from the plastic. Through an interpreter, Craig asked her where the needles came from. In a hushed voice so her supervisor wouldn’t hear her, she replied that they had were from “hospitals and off the streets.”

His brow furrowed with concern, Craig asked whether the facility was concerned about her contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS. Again came the soft, Hindi reply as the girl squatted on the pile of syringes, apparently unconcerned about a stray needle pricking her bare feet. “She will wash it,” the interpreter translated. “She won’t get any treatment.”

Messenger for the Children

Kielburger met with children who had grown up on a brick kiln in West Bengal, who had lung diseases from breathing in the dust from the carpets they wove in Varanasi sweat shops, who sold their bodies on streets in the Philippines under the watchful eyes of their adult pimps. But he still found a spirit of hope in them that in turn gave him the inspiration to take action on their behalf.

“They don’t want to be seen as little creatures who need help,” he says. “The only gift you can give them in return for the time they spend with you is to carry their stories home with you. Meeting these children is like a gift. When I was in Thailand,” he says, “I saw a street girl with an orange. She automatically took it and split it with her friend – no question about the matter. And in India, another group of street children were carrying this child with no legs from place to place, because they didn’t want to leave him behind.”

But even before Kielburger had returned to Canadian soil, he carried their message to more people than he’d dreamed possible.

He had been travelling for about seven weeks when he heard that Canada’s Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, was also in Southeast Asia with a trade delegation.

“Frankly,” says Kielburger, “human rights wasn’t on his agenda. Just a couple of months earlier, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs had announced that Canada – wouldn’t be the boyscout of the world. This was the attitude we were dealing with, and we were frustrated.”

Kielburger asked the prime minister to meet with him and some child laborers but was turned down.

In a move that was part luck, part stroke of brilliance (although he doesn’t see it that way), Kielburger and Free the Children bumped up the date of the press conference they’d been organizing for the local media, inviting the barrage of Canadian reporters that were following Chrétien. He and 10 year-old Asmita Satyarthi (daughter of Kailash, the man on whose behalf FTC had sent the box of signatures to India) “pulled an all-nighter” getting ready for the conference, during which they would be joined by two former child laborers. Two dozen journalists from high-profile Canadian newspapers and journals, and all of the major Canadian TV networks rearranged their schedules to attend.

During the conference, one of the reporters asked Kielburger if he was meeting with the prime minister. Kielburger responded that Chrétien had said he was too busy to meet with him, Asmita, and most importantly, the exploited street children.

“Forget being the prime minister,” he said. “It’s his moral responsibility to do this.”

When Kielburger called home the next day, he found that splashed across the front of all the major newspapers in Canada were headlines about how he had “upstaged” the prime minister, and how Chrétien had snubbed him.

Five days later, Chrétien’s office called Craig to arrange a meeting. And although Kielburger didn’t walk away from that meeting feeling Canada would lead the way toward ending child labor, he did come out with something else of value—the national media loved his story.

The Young and the Dreamers

Upon Craig’s return to Canada, he found that Free the Children had been catapulted to an organization of national prominence. He was greeted by camera flashes and microphones thrust at him by the hands of eager reporters. His face continued to pop up on the covers of newspapers and magazines across Canada and the US, and he told the stories of the exploited children he met on Good Morning, America, CNN News, and other well-known television programs.

But behind every interviewer’s smile was the profound amazement that a young boy could speak so eloquently, could gain media attention for his organization, and could bring an issue most people preferred to sweep under the rug into the international spotlight. After all, he was thirteen. (He’d celebrated a birthday during his trip.)

“Young people have to work twice as hard as adults to gain credibility,” he says. “The night before I came home from Southeast Asia, a radio talk-show host in Toronto announced that at my age, I should be interested in girls, sex, and video games—certainly not child labor. It’s astounding how so many people share that definition of a ‘normal’ child. They limit the spirit and enthusiasm of children.”

“In fact,” he continues, “I met with drug dealers who have greater faith in children to run drugs than I see people in the US and Canada put in their own kids.”

Today, under Craig’s direction, Free the Children continues to accomplish much on behalf of child laborers. They’ve connected with the nonprofit organizations Craig meets on his travels to build rehabilitation and education centers for children rescued from bonded labor and to create alternative sources of income for adults in these countries. (In India, for example, 55 million adults are unemployed, while 55 million children work in labor camps and on the streets.)

Free the Children chapters have popped up around the world, and each runs its own campaigns for more humane labor practices. The FTC club in Paso Robles, California, for example, organized a Nike boycott and collected Nike shoes and clothes from students who didn’t want to support Nike’s notorious sweatshops. The Calcutta, India, chapter held a rally to protest the practice of forcing handicapped children to work as beggars and drug runners. Shortly thereafter, the Indian government promised to take action to stop this practice.

Aside from the extra media attention he’s garnered because of his youth (he’s now 16), Kielburger feels that children and teenagers have an advantage when it comes to activism.

“Adults find taking action on large issues like child labor a lot scarier than we do,” he says, “because they’re more entrenched in their thinking. They say things like: ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I have a job and a family.’ But young people haven’t become conditioned to think in a little box; we don’t even know a box exists.”

“People put us down as being young and dreamers, which I frankly find encouraging. It’s the dreamers who thought that one day the Berlin Wall would fall or that apartheid in South Africa would end.”